Entering the seventh week of the WHL West Division season things are beginning to take shape as the large descrepancy in games played amongst the teams is begining to dwindle. The Prince George Cougars currently lead the division with 22 points from eighteen games played while the second place Spokane Chiefs have twenty points from sixteen games to this point. The Tri-City Americans and Seattle Thunderbirds follow in third and fourth respectively, with the Ams having seventeen points from fourteen games played and the T-Birds with fifteen points from thirteen games. Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers have fifteen points as well, but Kelowna has played eighteen games while the Blazers lead the division with nineteen games under their belts and the Portland Winterhawks trail the field with seven points from sixteen games. My preseason picks now look dismal as the only team I’m even close to is the Portland Winterhawks in last, which I predicted but so did everyone else in the world.
The Prince George Cougars are using improved play from Trent Hunter, Travis Eagles and more consistent play from veterans Blair Betts and Tyler Bouck to lead the division. The return of Scott Myers hasn’t hurt, but seventeen year old Marty Maurice wasn’t exactly hurting the Cougars in goal before the return of Myers. The Cougars have gained a reputation as being a grinding, hardworking team that puts in sixty minutes every night with this season being no exception. Toughness has been lacking in P.G. the last three years, but with the recent trade for 6’7″, 250 pound behemoth Derek Boogaard and the maturing of Ryan Chieduch and Travis Eagles, the Cougars now have the toughness to go along with the gritty style they bring to the rink every night! The Cougars are also benefitting from coach Ed Dempsey’s apparent awakening to the fact if you roll three lines and give your fourth line some work every night, his top two lines might have something left in the tank late in the close games, thus giving the team a chance of winning them instead of losing as they’ve done in the past. With the veteran leadership up front, the return of Scott Myers and some depth, the Cougars look to have a solid chance to stay at the top for a good part of the season. The only area of concern at this point is the relative lack of experience on the defence, with the trade of Jeff Zorn leaving sophomores Chieduch, Wedderburn and Hamhuis to anchor the back end with veteran Gary Toor as their mentor.
The Spokane Chiefs are a big surprise to this writer, but seem to be for real and are not only finding ways to score goals, they are keeping the puck out of the net, having only given up fourty-four goals in sixteen games. The Chiefs traded for offfensive defenseman Scott Roles from Kootenay to bolster a solid defensive group in David Boychuk, Kyle Rossiter, Jeremy Farr, Kurt Sauer and Chris Callaway. Tim Smith, Lynn Loyns and Brandin Cote have formed a solid first line that is producing timely goals with Daniel Bohac and fellow Euro Roman Tvrdon chipping in as well and the acquisition of gritty overager Brent McDonald to help Derek Schutz provide leadership should help the Chiefs stay near the top. The addition of a top flight tough guy for the stretch run and an upgrade in net or at least a solid addition to Mike Lenchuka might be all the Chiefs need to become a true contender for the title because coach Mike Babcock is a proven winner who knows what it takes to win it all!
Tri-City Americans check in at number three and are a surprise to be there, however many would argue that with Don Hay behind the bench this placing is a given with his reputation and two Memorial Cup rings as a head coach. Truth be known though, the Ams lost a talented trio of players in possible 99/2000 NHL Calder candidate Scott Gomez as well as Ken McKay and Dylan Gyori, who carried the Ams offense a year ago and would not be easily replaced. The Ams have been able to put a 7-4-3 record together while scoring only as many as they give up, which is fifty-six goals, telling me they could just as easily be 4-7-3. Goaltending has apparently been hot and cold with Blake Ward getting most of the action and heralded Euro rookie Milan Bartovic yet to hit stride, the Ams are a hard team to figure out. Blake Evans, a checking line center for the past couple years is now anchoring the offence along with Jaroslav Kristek and Curtis Huppe, with the question being can these guys carry the load over the long haul? It appears the Ams are a set up man on offense and a solid, stay at home defenceman away from being competitive for the entire year and I’m not sure they have the depth to trade for the talent needed. Maybe Hay can keep the Ams together all year and give it a shot come playoff time, but it looks like he’s willing to try and play spoiler this year with the long term goal to give it a real push next year!
Seattle is the team that has most WHL watchers scratching their heads, as this team is loaded with offensive talent, yet appears to this point anyway, to lack the veteran leadership and direction that can get them to the top. Even with Alexandre Fomitchev, acquired earleir this year from defending league champion Calgary Hitmen, in goal, the T-Birds look average at best and lacking the fire to win a league championship. Scott Kelman and Brett Decceco have been non-factors so far and will need to get it together soon if the Birds are to win anything. Injuries are certainly not helping the T-Birds cause, but with their depth most thought it wouldn’t deter a loaded T-Bird team from running away from the pack. Look for the Birds to deal some of their wealth of talent to address their lack of leadership and to bolster their young blueline, allowing them to get back on track soon! With one to six games in hand over all other teams in the division, it wouldn’t take much of a win streak to get the T-Birds moving in the right direction, and with some good trades, they could very well keep rolling for a while, right to the league championship.
The Kelowna Rockets made early trades to toughen up and gain leadership, but a key injury to Rory McDade has hurt the offensive depth of the Rockets early. With a huge defence, I believe as the season wears on the size of the teams defence will begin to pay dividends as other teams forwards will get tired and the punishing Rocket defence will get stronger. Kevin Swanson needs to regain his playoff form from a year ago to help jump start the Rockets and McDade needs to recover from his concussion problem for the Rockets to move up too much further in the standings becasue as I mentioned in the preseason picks, one thing the Rockets don’t have is depth. If the Rockets get healthy, they could climb the ladder quickly, if not, it could be another long year in Kelowna.
Despite having two of the top five scorers in the division, the Kamloops Blazers are having a tough time keeping the puck out of their net. Seventeen year old center Jared Aulin is in the third spot in league scoring while captain Micki Dupont sits a couple spots back, the problem is, the Blazers have allowed five more goals than the seventy they’ve scored. Robyn Regehr is still with the Calgary Flames after a miraculous recovery from two broken legs in a serious car accident this summer, and with the injury to Steve Smith Saturday night, they might not get him back at all which would be a huge blow. Veteran goaltender had a good game in the last week but has struggled to be consistent and back up Davis Parley has looked solid most of the time, but with a porous defence in front, it’s been tough for the two puck stoppers. The Blazers lack of toughness is also exposing the teams talented players to constant cheap shots and other teams players not having to fear retribution for any liberties they take with these guys. The team is aware of the lack of toughness, but because of the price to get tougher, are willing to go with what they have for now, choosing to go with the “team toughness” concept. The problem with this option is the Blazers have lost Jared Aulin to at least four games already due to cheap shots and it doesn’t appear to be letting up as teams run him at will. It doesn’t appear to be the best philosophy to have your best player having to score as well as drop the gloves to keep the heat off. A deal for some toughness and the return of Regehr could help the Blazers get to the middle of the pack, with next year looking much brighter than this year!
Portland is in trouble. One of their leading scorers and playmakers Derek MacLean has walked out on the club and trades have fallen through because players refuse to report to the Winterhawks, spelling big problems for a storied franchise. Solid goaltending yet little in way of offense or defence, the Winterhawks are going to be in for a long winter. Hopefully Hodge won’t be so stubborn this year and will deal his few assets at or before the trade deadline to up grade his talent level for the years to come. Matt Walker, Michael Kiesman, Jason Labarbera and Kent Sauer could all garner some young talent for a rebuilding Hawk team because as it sits the Hawks appear to be a long way from the last playoff spot and only Walker appears to be likely to return next year. A lot of young guy’s should get a ton of ice time which could aid their developement for the next couple of years, but this years appears to be done!